The Venezuelan New Rich’s Taste for Artwork

Perez argues that the revolution's main internal enemy is corrupt power networks pilfering oil rent for personal enrichment.

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The Newly Rich’s Taste for Artwork by Leander Perez. (Tatuy TV)
The Newly Rich’s Taste for Artwork by Leander Perez. (Tatuy TV)
By Leander Perez – Tatuy TV
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Venezuela has been split in two: the Venezuela of the US dollar, of import shops (bodegones), parties in the country’s [costly holiday archipelago] Los Roques and luxury yachts in [beach resort] Morrocoy; and the Venezuela of the local currency minimum wage, the [subsidised government program] Local Food Production and Provision Committees (CLAP), the blackouts and water shortages.

In the first live the rich of yesteryear: the bourgeoisie, the wealthy petit-bourgeoisie, landowners and oligarchs, who directly ruled the country until 1998 and who loathe the Bolivarian Revolution. But, alongside these sectors, a stratum of “new rich” has also emerged: businesspeople and civic-military bureaucrats (some also become entrepreneurs and landowners), which Land Minister Wilmar Castro Soteldo amicably calls the "revolutionary bourgeoisie."

The latter Venezuela is that of the workers and peasants, the people.

How does this newly wealthy sector make its fortunes? Well, just like their traditional upper class neighbours: by doing business with the state and exploiting workers and campesinos while being financed and protected by powerful institutions. This parasitic element is the main historical characteristic of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie.

Generally, those who have been able to seize portions of the national oil rent have done so to amass fortunes in foreign bank accounts, as far away as possible from Venezuela’s justice system, so much so that they have even taken "their" money to the very heart of the empire, investing in properties, assets and even works of art. But this article is not about these cases, but rather the opposite: the repatriation of capital.

Methodology

Researching capital movements in Venezuela is a complex task. On the one hand, state institutions are opaque or simply haven't published figures for years. On the other, there are a diversity of mechanisms through which public funds are transferred to private players: commissions for overpriced contracts, access to credit or preferential currency markets, and even direct and shameless theft.

However, it is still possible to study these phenomena. One way is to use the data offered by other countries that is publicly accessible in applications such as Trade Map.

According to the International Trade Centre (ITC), “Trade Map is an interactive web application that presents trade statistics and information on market access for the international development of companies. Transforming the large volume of primary trade data into accessible, easy-to-use and web-based formats, Trade Map provides indicators of exports, international demand, alternative markets and the role of trade competitors. Trade Map covers annual trade data for 220 countries and territories and all of the 5,300 products of the Harmonised System.”

Until 2013, Trade Map obtained direct data regarding Venezuela’s imports. However, the data subsequently offered by this application is "mirror data,” which is obtained referentially by examining the records of countries that export to Venezuela. This data has helped us to develop a series of graphs which demonstrate capital flow, in the form of artwork, into Venezuela.

Art in times of crisis

In times of crisis, entrepreneurs and a lot of politicians enjoy giving speeches on austerity. They point out that cuts need to be made in health, education, pensions and talk about the need to reduce the fiscal deficit.

Venezuela, because of its oil dependent rentier economy, entered an acute economic crisis since the sharp fall in crude prices between 2014 and 2016, which saw them collapse from US $96.29 per barrel in 2014 to US $26.5 in 2016. This brought million-dollar losses for the country.

As can be seen from the graphs below, the fall in oil prices had a direct impact on the economy: GDP fell sharply to below that of 1998. International reserves, which had been falling since 2008, continued to be used up, now as debt repayment rather than investment. These figures and graphs give us an overview of the crisis.

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Venezuela's GDP expressed in Bolivars since 1997. (Leander Perez with data from the Central Bank of Venezuela)
Venezuela's GDP expressed in Bolivars since 1997. (Leander Perez with data from the Central Bank of Venezuela)

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Venezuela’s international reserves in millions of United States dollars. (Leander Perez with data from the Central Bank of Venezuela)
Venezuela’s international reserves in millions of United States dollars. (Leander Perez with data from the Central Bank of Venezuela)

The fall in both international reserves and national oil revenue in turn impacted imports of basic goods, such as food and medicine. The government's explanation is that if the state has less money, then fewer products may be imported. Some even compare the situation to a parent who is suddenly left without employment, drastically reducing household incomes. Conclusion? We had to tighten our belts because the oil bonanza was over.

However, reviewing the figures offered by Trade Map, it is evident that while food and medical imports did generally decrease, there was a substantial increase in the import of artwork in the same years.

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Venezuela’s imports of different products in thousands of US dollars. Milk and dairy products, eggs, honey and edible animal products in blue; cereals in orange; meat and edible byproducts in grey; artwork and antiquities in yellow and pharmaceutical products in green. (Leander Perez with data from Trade Map)
Venezuela’s imports of different products in thousands of US dollars. Milk and dairy products, eggs, honey and edible animal products in blue; cereals in orange; meat and edible byproducts in grey; artwork and antiquities in yellow and pharmaceutical products in green. (Leander Perez with data from Trade Map)

While the amount of imported artwork (in yellow) does not exceed other products on the chart (all over US $1 billion), it is important to review the trend. At the same time as the import levels of most items dramatically fell since 2014, artwork imports increased to US $233,288,000 in 2015.

The Art Route

The first thing one might think is that most of these works of art came from the United States or Europe, as they are our habitual markets. The last data provided by Venezuela in 2013 seems to corroborate this, although the recorded quantities are quite low.

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List of markets supplying artwork or collectible objects and antiques imported by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in 2013, according to data offered by Venezuela. (Trade Map)
List of markets supplying artwork or collectible objects and antiques imported by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in 2013, according to data offered by Venezuela. (Trade Map)

Looking at the Venezuelan government data (what legally went through customs and was registered accordingly), it can be observed that the main markets supplying this type of product were effectively the United States and Europe. However, when we review the mirror data after 2013, we found something surprising: almost all artwork brought to the country was from South Korea, a military ally of the United States.

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Export of art objects or collectible goods and antiques from South Korea to Venezuela in thousands of US dollars. (Leander Perez with mirror data from Trade Map.)
Export of art objects or collectible goods and antiques from South Korea to Venezuela in thousands of US dollars. (Leander Perez with mirror data from Trade Map.)

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Value of exports of artwork or collectible goods and antiques from South Korea to the World in 2015 from left to right: World, Venezuela, US, Switzerland, Hong Kong, UK, Japan, Indonesia, Germany, Italy, France, China. (Leander Perez with data from Trade Map)
Value of exports of artwork or collectible goods and antiques from South Korea to the World in 2015 from left to right: World, Venezuela, US, Switzerland, Hong Kong, UK, Japan, Indonesia, Germany, Italy, France, China. (Leander Perez with data from Trade Map)

The first graph shows a contrast between the artwork import data of Venezuelan customs in 2013 and that exported to Venezuela by South Korean customs. In 2015 and 2016, Venezuelan customs did not even offer detailed figures for imported products, or at least no data was registered by Trade Map.

Another important fact is that after 2016, South Korean customs reported no art exports to Venezuela. These million-dollar exports in 2015 were exceptional, reflecting that this is not a regular market.

The second chart compares the volume of South Korean art exports to the world in 2015, when Venezuela reached a peak import value for these products. As can be seen, the amount of artwork exported to Venezuela accounted for more than half of South Korean exports to the rest of the world, and more than double its exports to the United States.

Given that South Korea is not a regular market for Venezuela, and that Venezuelan customs did not register the entry of these products, we can draw two conclusions: that South Korea was merely a transit country for goods purchased in Venezuela's usual markets and that most of the artwork was not South Korean.

Another conclusion which can be drawn from the graphs, and which makes us presume that the artwork was imported by the new rich and not by the sectors of the traditional bourgeoisie, is that these imports are not common in previous or later years’ records. These are punctual facts and attention-grabbing amounts.

In the next section, we will unravel more clues to confirm this thesis.

Sanctions and artwork

The bureaucracy will never let us forget 2015 as the year in which the first sanctions against Venezuela were announced, especially since these sanctions, which have been aggravated into a financial and commercial blockade, have become the perfect and absolute justification for everything regrettable that occurs in Venezuela.

Before proceeding, it must be clarified that, as revolutionaries and Venezuelans, it is our duty to categorically reject any kind of "sanction," blockade or economic measure of a coercive nature that imperialists impose on our country. Imperialists will never be able to lecture any country in the world on human rights, combating drug trafficking or fighting terrorism, as they are the number one human rights violators, drug traffickers, and terrorists.

We point this out because Venezuelan bureaucracy has gotten used to limiting debate by suggesting that those who criticise them are imperialist agents. Time will tell who the real agents are.

Returning to the subject, the first sanctions against Venezuelan officials were unveiled on February 2, 2015. At this time, the US State Department imposed visa restrictions on various members of Maduro's government, who were hypocritically accused of human rights violations and corruption.

Public access to the Trade Map app normally only allows you to review import data by year. However, due to the emergence of the coronavirus (and only until July) the application has allowed free access to more detailed data. Records indicate that all of South Korea’s 2015 exports of artworks to Venezuela (US $231,537,000) were made in a single month in February. Is this a coincidence or is there a causal connection?

The correlation between the month in which the US State Department imposed sanctions against Venezuelan officials and the month in which the largest export of artwork from South Korea to Venezuela took place is an indication that in reality the artwork was actually a way to protect assets, and perhaps not the only way.

At the beginning of this article, we noted that most of those who have been able to pocket Venezuelan oil revenues have preferred to amass capital in other countries, some even in the US. However, as a result of sanctions (which put the new rich’s US assets at risk), some of this capital has returned to Venezuela in the form of artwork via South Korea. Can we be sure of this? Let's look at the story of ex-Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz.

Luisa Ortega Diaz: From sanctions to imperialist agent

It is not known whether Venezuela’s former attorney general, Luisa Ortega Diaz, was on the State Department's list of sanctioned persons in February 2015, as the names remain anonymous due to US visa confidentiality regulations.

What is known is that she was sanctioned by the United States on other occasions, and that in 2017, when she openly switched sides to the imperialists and began to collaborate with "regime change" operations, her sanctions were lifted. Was she no longer a "human rights violator" or "corrupt"? Surely this mattered little, but the imperialists wanted to send a message: whoever collaborates with them can keep their stolen money and property.

The case of Ortega Diaz is very particular, as it is one of the only ones where the defendant's home was raided on live television. The reason for this raid may or may not be due to a dispute between factions within the state bureaucracy, since she had been promoted to the position of attorney general by [ PSUV Vice President] Diosdado Cabello, a fact he himself acknowledges.

Whether or not this is the reason, the truth is that thanks to this televised raid, Venezuelans were able to look at the home of one of these newly wealthy people.

According to state TV channel journalist Boris Castellanos, who narrated the event, after opening the two armoured doors that secured the 300 m2 property, they found "luxury garments from brands such as Cartier, Prada, Chanel, Carolina Herrera or Hugo Boss” as well as "a collection of high-cost international drinks" and "a million-dollar collection of artwork including paintings by [Venezuelan artist] Jacobo Borges, an original screen print by the US plastic artist Andy Warhol and sculptures presumably belonging to [Colombian artist] Fernando Botero, among others.”

What was found in Ortega Díaz’s home is another indication of what we have been pointing to: the bureaucracy’s purchase of artwork as a form of asset protection. Although it is not possible to know exactly when the ex-prosecutor acquired the artwork found in her apartment, the truth is that they are not South Korean. In any case, if it could be shown that she was among the people involved in the million-dollar import of artwork explained above, the theory of the use of South Korea for capital transit could be confirmed.

It is unlikely that the entire value of the artwork exported from South Korea to Venezuela between 2013 and 2016 of US $487 million was found in Ortega Diaz’s home. Presumably then, these assets remain in the country, adorning the private collections of the new rich, who, as you can see, acquired an extraordinary taste for the arts.

Corruption and national security

The data highlighted above, as well as the raid of Luis Ortega Díaz's home, raise certain questions. Did no one close to the former prosecutor know about this life of luxuries and her taste for art? Were intelligence agencies such as the Bolivarian Intelligence Agency (SEBIN) or the Military Counter-Intelligence (DGCIM) unaware of this? Was she considered corrupt only after she betrayed her government? How long did she work for imperialism? Didn't the US know that Venezuelans were using their territory and banks to protect illicitly accumulated capital?

The first thing to note is that US imperialists and their intelligence agencies know everything (or almost everything) that happens in their territory and banks. During the 2008 financial crisis, to cite just one example, they knew that their banks were being used by drug trafficking networks and permitted it because in some cases it was the only liquid capital inflow which could be used to bail out the banks.

The imperialists allowed this to happen for two fundamental reasons. The first, as we have just seen, because it is profitable for their economies to move capital, no matter where it comes from. In the Venezuelan case, corruption is one mechanism for extracting oil rent, but so are double taxation treaties or differentiated pricing strategies, among so many others. Through corruption, capitalists extract what they cannot extract by "legal" means.

The second reason is that corruption is a recruiting strategy for intelligence agencies. Once encouraged, they allow corrupt officials around the world to send their amassed capital to US banks, buy property, cars and even artwork, and then block these assets to kick-start negotiations. Obviously, those who have stolen from their country are not revolutionaries, so it is not difficult for them to stand on the side of imperialism.

This leads us to answer one of the questions we asked ourselves: how long was Ortega Diaz collaborating with the imperialists. Well, the answer is from the first moment she began pocketing public funds. Traitors do not become traitors when they begin to directly collaborate with US agencies, they are traitors from the moment they place their own economic interests above those of the collective they claim to represent.

A quick review of a list of traitors and imperialist collaborators is enough to realise that they have something in common: they all come from the ranks of the government, were docile to power, swore allegiance to the government and people, and, to a greater or lesser extent, were considered untouchable from popular criticism. Luisa Ortega Díaz, [former Finance Minister] Rafael Isea, [former Food Minister] Hebert García Plaza, [former bodyguard of Hugo Chavez] Leamsy Salazar, [former SEBIN chief] Cristopher Figuera and [former Oil Minister] Rafael Ramírez are just a few names of senior former government officials who made fortunes in the shadows of power. It should be noted that after being labelled as traitors and corrupt, many of the properties belonging to these ex-officials were raided, but the raids were not transmitted on TV as was the case of the former attorney general. Were million-dollar art collections also found?

More recently, if we look at those involved in [the May 2020 mercenary incursion] Operation Gedeon, we find people like [the retired Major General] Cliver Alcalá Cordones, whose nephew was captured in the operation, or [retired General] Raúl Baduel, whose son was also captured. Where did they come from? They came out of the ranks of power, of those who swore allegiance, not from the "misguided" left as some government ideologies claim.

The mercenaries involved in the operation were surely aware of the riches that exist in Venezuela product of corruption because of their ties to these traitors. It was no coincidence that their contract specified that they would keep a percentage of everything "recovered,” surely referring to jewellery, luxury cars, properties, but also large quantities of repatriated artwork.

The bottom line is that the main internal enemy of the revolution is not in the critical ranks of the left, but in the ranks of those "loyal" to power. For this reason, national security cannot continue to be left to a police-military bureaucracy or the intelligence services, but must be a task of the whole people.

Making sure that the state apparatus is transparent, that the fight against corruption is not used for political purposes and that "faithful" corrupt officials are not defended by the government are all first-order tasks to confront imperialist aggression. Workers have always been at the forefront of fighting this scourge, even jeopardising their personal safety and freedom by reporting cases of corruption, but it is these workers and campesinos who have proven truly capable of confronting capitalism and imperialism. Any alliance must be with them.

Leander Perez holds degrees in Political Leadership and Government, as well as in Political and Public Management.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.